The History of Chicken McNuggets
McNuggets were a game-changer that turned Americans into chicken-loving nugget fiends and made McDonald's a poultry powerhouse!
For the few who do not know, Chicken McNuggets are a deep-fried breaded chicken nugget product sold by the fast food chain, McDonald's. They were born in the early 1980s and took America and eventually the world by storm. In the process they would change not just fast food, but how we consume chicken in our homes.
It is a remarkable story, but before we get into the history of the McNuggets, we should mention two very important people who worked at McDonald's at the time of their creation. Ray Kroc, the chairman and founder of the company and Fred Turner who was the CEO.
Raymond Albert Kroc affectively purchased the fast food company McDonald's in 1961 from the McDonalds brothers. He would be the CEO from 1967 to 1973. He is credited with the initial growth of the company and shepherding it through its first few decades. Taking a single restaurant and transforming it into the most successful fast food corporation in the world.
While Kroc was innovative when it came to standardizing the McDonald's system, he also had a soft spot for innovation. Willing to take chances, he would push the company to experiment with the menu. Harnessing the power of the company's franchisees to gain insight into what consumers wanted, but also bringing their ideas for menu items into the McDonald's system.
From Big Macs to Onion Nuggets to everything in between (like a pineapple burger), Kroc believed that McDonald's needed to experiment.
A company like McDonald's though, thrives by standardization. So new items needed to be well thought out. Fortunately Kroc had hired someone way back in 1956 who had a knack for that sort of work, Fred Turner.
Turner started as a grill operator and quickly moved up the ranks at McDonald’s. In just two years he was the Operations Vice President, and he would continue to get promoted. Landing the job of CEO, a role he held from 1973–1987.
What made Turner special? His attention to detail. He would establish strict guidelines that governed all aspects of McDonald’s business. His motto of "Quality, Service, and Cleanliness," would permeate all aspects of McDonald's operations. From the design of the restaurants to the exact thickness of the fries.
Under his leadership, McDonald’s would expand to 118 countries with over 31,000 restaurants and as the signs said, billions of hamburgers were sold.
Both Turner and Kroc are important to the origin of the McNugget, we will talk about their contributions later, but they didn't invent the chicken nugget, that honor went to...
Robert Baker was a renowned food scientist who has often been referred to as the "George Washington Carver of poultry." He got that moniker because he saw the vast potential of poultry and used his know-how to stretch its capabilities. He is credited with more than 40 poultry-related innovations and he published countless papers on the subject, but it was one amazing creation that would help change how we eat fast food, the chicken nugget.
The nugget was invented by Baker in the 1950s while he was a professor at Cornell University. There he published an unpatented work for a bite-sized batter-dipped, "Chicken Crispie." It solved two big problems that the poultry industry was having at the time. How to form ground chicken into shapes that would hold together and how to batter and freeze the final product so that it could be cooked at a later time. It was a huge leap forward in processed chicken and one people would build upon for decades.
Baker didn't just stumble upon chicken. He, like many people, was trying to solve a very real problem.
This story goes back to World War II. During the war, the military requisitioned most of the beef production in the United States. That meant civilians needed an alternative protein source and many of them moved towards chicken. As the war continued, the military started to also demand chicken. This incentivized farms and the food processing industry to ramp up to meet demands. When the war ended, Americans had a greater appreciation for chicken and the infrastructure to support it.
They also had beef again and people flocked back to it for many reasons. One of those was the convenience.
The problem with chicken at the time was that the portions were all wrong. The size of the bird, the time to cook it, and how it made to the table wasn't convenient for the post war society. It couldn't compete with all the ways beef was currently being used. So, people like Baker needed to figure out how to make it convenient, flexible, and easy.
But Why Chicken Now?
During the 1970s, chicken consumption had greatly increased in the United States, largely owing to fast food chains such as KFC, Chicken Delight, Chick-fil-A, and Church’s Chicken. At the same time, the medical profession praised the healthful benefits of chicken as opposed to hamburgers. This caused a stir in the hamburger fast food industry.
As the 70s drew to a close a few factors would contribute to a chicken boom that would get only larger in the 80s.
1. People perceived chicken as a healthier option.
2. Chicken was cheaper on average than beef. Which would allow people to buy more of it, but would also allow restaurants to price the food similarly or just a little less than beef offerings and still make money.
3. Technology for the processing and growing of chickens would bring down prices and increase availability and varieties of offerings.
4. Fast food companies were showing lackluster sales overall. They needed to add new products to the menu to bring people through the door.
Onion Nuggets Lead to Chicken McNuggets
I do not remember McDonald’s Onion Nuggets, but members of my family were big onion ring fans. So much so that they would only go to fast food places that had onion rings when I was a kid. They would speak of a time when McDonald’s sold these magical bite-size onion treats at dinner time and how sad they were to see them go.
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These savory morsels were launched in the Seventies, and it appears McDonald’s was pretty serious about them. The problem was that consistency with Onion Nuggets was difficult. Especially when you had different onion suppliers. McDonald's just couldn't nail it down. So, the Onion Nugget would need to be scrapped, but what could they replace it with?
Before we get to that though, we need to meet...
René Arend was McDonald's Executive Chef from 1976 to 2004. He would be involved in some of McDonald's most memorable creations, including Chicken McNuggets and the McRib.
Arend was a fancy type chef when he met Ray Kroc who was impressed with his skills and tried to lure him into McDonald's. Arend was confused by the offer. Why would McDonald's want to bring in a chef of his background if they were serving burgers and fries? Kroc believed he would be an asset in the creation of new products, even though Fred Turner was opposed to it. Kroc eventually triumphed. Fred Turner relented, and Arend, after some resistance, joined the company in 1976.
One of his early projects was the onion nugget. And despite his best efforts to make them delicious, they just couldn't be worked into the McDonald's system. The Onion Nuggets would fail, despite my Mother's affection for them. Ultimately it was Fred Turner who would turn him away from onions, killing the project. But when he did, he said to Arend, why not try chicken instead?
McNuggets are Born
New McDonald's Menu items can come from many sources, key players in their development are the chefs in the corporate kitchen and the franchise owners. The owners are key since they are closest to the consumer and will notice a need. Sometimes this results in them taking matters into their own hands, but more often they bring the idea to corporate for consideration. That is how we got such iconic products as the Big Mac, Filet-O-Fish, and Egg McMuffin.
The process for the development of a new menu item is a long process. From ideation to launch can take several years. Along the way it will be tested at many levels of the company.
With chicken, franchisees were noticing the growing success of chicken-based fast food. They wanted a solution so that they could compete. Chicken nuggets were not the first choice, they tried fried chicken and chicken sandwiches, they even played around with the idea of chicken pot pie. Ultimately the convenience of the nugget as a controllable finger food won out.
Arend went right to work on nuggets cutting up a chicken breast, breading it, frying it and developing dipping sauces. He brought it to be tested and people LOVED it. But the administration at McDonalds realized the technical issues that would arise trying to source and process chicken, so they needed a solution. A technical solution.
So, they went to Banquet Foods. Banquet was still relying on a meat-grinding technology. So they could grind chicken meat and form it into a shape, but the texture was more akin to a chicken sausage and their diamond shape made them seem even more unnatural. That just wouldn't do.
Next Fred Turner went to Gorton's, who specialized in battered and frozen fish. To get the people and project going, McDonald’s formed an internal/external partnership headed by Gorton's Bud Sweeney. It was Sweeney bringing Gorton's expertise to bear that solved the problem on how they would batter the nuggets. Eventually arriving on a tempura coating that gave the appearance of having been freshly battered.
The problem was, they still didn't have an efficient nugget they could use. Sweeney explored all manner of options, but chicken at the time was sold in ways that wouldn't scale to produce nugget-sized chicken in a dependable way. This process needed to be mechanized and at a huge scale.
So that problem was sent to Keystone Foods.
Who are Keystone Foods
Keystone foods started in Philadelphia as a small family-owned meat business. They would grow when the company's leader Herb Lotman figured out how to quickly freeze beef patties in a way that would allow them to retain their taste and texture. This would become known as the Individual Quick Freezing process (IQF). McDonald's would embrace IQF and would use it moving forward. Cementing a relationship with Key Food that would last for decades.
The two companies would grow even closer when together they developed a total distribution concept. If you were a new franchise owner, everything you needed to run your new restaurant would be delivered to you. This allowed the new owners to not worry about supplies and equipment and focus on what was important, customers.
With that partnership secured, Keystone would grow into one of the biggest food companies in the world. Eventually they would be bought and sold before winding up in the hands of Tyson Foods in 2018.
Keystone had been focused on the thing that McDonald's needed, beef. So how did they make the move to chicken?
How did Keystone Solve the Problem?
Keystone solved the process through a combination of manual human powered line work and automation. The humans would be deployed doing the complicated deboning process. The deboned chicken would be sent to a heavily modified hamburger machine that could take the chicken and nuggetize them.
Lotman was convinced this was going to be important. He believed in McDonald's and had taken chances earlier in his career betting on them. It had paid off in a big way. When a test of the nuggets were done in early 1980 at a single store and were a hit. Keystone rushed to build a plant to make the nuggets.
With no assurances from McDonald's Keystone built a 13 million dollar plant (the equivalent of about 47 million today) in just over 3 months.
It would take time to ramp things up. Mostly because demand was so high during the first two years or so. As the rollout continued, more nuggets were needed, and Tyson Foods, who would eventually purchase Keystone, would get involved. Realizing that they couldn't handle the workload alone, Keystone chose to share tech and processes with Tyson, which had a big effect on the chickens themselves.
Tyson, who raised and processed chickens, would develop a whole new breed of chicken to meet demand. It was nearly twice as large as the standard supermarket chicken at the time. Packing on more meat to increase the yield before the mcnuggetting process.
Fun Fact: The original McNuggets contained ground chicken skin in addition to chicken meat, and they were fried in oil. When the McNuggets were tested by McDonald’s technicians, six of them had twice as much fat as a Big Mac. The chicken skin was eliminated and the improved McNuggets weighed in at 16.3 grams of fat, compared to 32.4 grams for the Big Mac.
How are they made
Chicken McNuggets are mostly made from a mix of full cuts of meat, chicken breasts, rib meat, tenderloin and skin. They do a rough grind of the meat before adding flavors and preservatives. After that, it is molded into shapes that are battered, breaded, and finally coated in a leavened tempura batter. They then cook them a bit to set the tempura batter.
The chicken is uncooked at this point and flash frozen before delivery to restaurants. It is there that they are deep fried to the proper serving temperature.
According to McDonald's, the flavor of McNugget's should be chickeny with slight pepper and celery notes. Over the years the recipe will change as they altered the amount of dark meat and skin. They will also change and remove the types and number of preservatives. Some have said this has changed the flavor over the years and I agree.
Despite what you might read online, the McNuggets are not made from any sort of meat slime or unusual chicken parts.
While flavor and components might have changed, the shapes of the McNuggets have been consistent.
According to McDonald's, the nuggets come in four shapes: the bell, the bow-tie, the ball, and the boot. The reason for the consistent shaping is to ensure proper cooking times for food safety. You cook too many nuggets of different sizes, and you might get an inconsistent cooking of the batch.
The shapes also make them fun and ensure that they will give a dependable experience while using the cups the dipping sauces comes in.
When McNuggets were being tested, it’s not clear if they had settled on these four shapes. I have found images that look more like just "the ball shape" in a pile. I am guessing this is just simplicity in advertising, but it is worth noting.
Another important aspect of the nugget is the size itself. They are not too big and not too small, which makes them a food that a person in a car would feel comfortable eating while on the go. Like how one might eat french fries.
Whatever the case, people have their favorites, and some have even associated different flavors with different shapes. This is just in their heads. Each McNugget's taste is exactly the same. You can change that flavor though, with the dipping sauces, which were being developed at McDonald's kitchen while the McNuggets were being worked on.
Arend keeps at it
While the technical parts of the McNuggets system was being sorted out at Keystone and Tyson, Chef Arend was staying busy. These new nuggets had to be tested and cooked in the kitchens of actual McDonald’s.
How longs should they be cooked? How long could they be served after being cooked?
Most important, what sauces would be served up with the McNuggets and Arend came up with 4.
The Original Sauces
The original McNugget sauces were BBQ, Sweet & Sour, Hot Mustard, and Honey. The sauces would change over the years with new ones being added and removed, but you can still get the four original today, although Hot Mustard is now, Honey Mustard.
Arguably, it is the sauce that is the big attraction and when I was a kid my friends and I would debate which flavor was the best. We also liked to experiment with mixing sauces together. Some of the combos were interesting, especially BBQ/Sweet & Sour, but I prefer to keep my sauces separate.
If you went to a McDonald's in the early 1980s that happened to be selling McNuggets, initially you could only get them in one size, the 6 Piece. It wouldn't be until October of 1982 that they would add the 9 Piece, and 20 Piece. Those would go wider in 1983.
The McNuggets rollout was slow. Which is probably why they didn't move to larger sizes right away. That is because there just wasn't enough chicken. It would take time for Tyson to come up with a new breed and for farmers to raise all those chickens.
The good news is that the McNuggets shortage would lead Arend to create another famous menu item, the McRib in 1981.
A chicken shortage leads to the McRib!
The McRib, which is a pork product, would not exist if not for the Chicken McNugget. McNuggets, even in testing, were a huge hit, which led to shortages and complaints from both customers and franchisees.
This shortage would lead directly to the creation of the McRib. In a 2009 interview, Arend said, “There wasn’t a system to supply enough chicken. We had to come up with something to give the other franchises as a new product. So, the McRib came about because of the shortage of chickens.”
For more information on the McRib, check out the post I did on that other legendary McFood.
The McChicken Sandwich
At the same time that McNuggets were being rolled out, they also were pushing a chicken sandwich. The McChicken was originally introduced in 1980 as an after 4pm dinner special along with their Chopped Beefsteak Sandwich. It consisted of a chicken patty weighing 3.6 ounces, served on a toasted sesame seed bun with lettuce and dressing.
For a bit there, it was like the McChicken and McNuggets were competing against each other to see which would be more popular. The McChicken was a less consistent experience and complaints about the sandwich were more frequent. It also didn't have the buzz of McNuggets, which were something new, while chicken sandwiches were available at multiple fast food restaurants.
In the end, there could be only one. The McChicken was canceled and wouldn't be revived until 1988.
McNuggets were a massive success. Within three years of going national, they accounted for 7.5% of McDonald's domestic sales. In 1985, they made more than $700 million in McNugget sales alone. In the blink of an eye, McDonald's, the largest supplier of hamburgers in the United States, became the second largest chicken retailer behind Kentucky Fried Chicken.
It would take KFC three years to finally introduce a chicken nugget of their own, but it was too late. McDonald's had taken advantage of its core strengths; its ability to combine speedy technical food innovation with a streamlined supply chain. The result would have other fast food companies playing catch-up for years to come.
McDonald's was using anthropomorphic Chicken McNuggets in their McDonaldland commercial advertising to some success. Eventually they would figure out that these adorable little guys would make great happy meal toys. In late 1988, they started advertising their new McNugget Buddies Happy Meals.
The line-up, which would expand and change in years to come, was initially 10 different characters. They were made of molded rubber, and each had removable accessories like a hat or belt, and came with a one line biography to tell kids what they were about. The fun thing about those accessories is that you could mix and match them to increase the variation on your McNugget Buddies.
I had always been a fan of the McNugget Buddies and hoped they would have been bigger than they were. I think if they had gotten them out in the earlier part of the decade, say 1984, they could have made them a minor rival to the Smurfs.
McNuggets Changed How We Eat
McNuggets helped change not only the American diet but also the system of raising and processing poultry. In 1980, most chickens were sold whole; today about 90 percent of chickens sold in the United States have been cut into pieces to produce cutlets or nuggets. In 1992, the American consumption of chicken surpassed that of beef for the first time and because of the McNugget, McDonald’s is the nation’s second-largest chicken seller after KFC.
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Wow, it's incredible the level of influence that McDonald's had over our entire chicken production process. I would mix hot mustard and honey to create hot-honey-mustard.